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The consciousness myth (revised)

The Times Literary Supplement 27 February 2015 (no. 5839 pp. 1415)
Galen Strawson

This is an amended and slightly expanded version of the article published in the Times Literary
Supplement on 27 February 2015. http://www.the-tls.co.uk/tls/public/article1523413.ece
Ive corrected a couple of errors, supplied references, and added a coda containing quotations
from the philosopher and poet Giacomo Leopardi and the neurosurgeon Henry Marsh.
Evidently there are many more thinkers who could have been mentioned in a piece of this sort.
When I cite a work I give the date of first publication, or sometimes the date of composition,
while the page reference is to the edition listed in the bibliography.

Many historians of philosophy, with all their intended praise, . . . attribute mere
nonsense . . . to past philosophers, as Kant pointed out in 1790.1 The history of ideas is
a zooof myths about what happened and what people said. I used to think the
mythologizing was a relatively slow process, because the passage of time was needed to
blur the past. Twenty years ago, however, an instant myth was born: a myth about a
dramatic resurgence of interest in the topic of consciousness in philosophy, in the mid1990s, after long neglect.
Its too late to uproot it now. Its spread like Japanese kudzu or Russian ivy. Too
many people have a stake in it, including those who believe that they lived through the
resurgence (especially the graduate students of the time) and have a place, however
modest, among its champions. It soared on a soaring internet whose massively
accumulative character then fixed it in place. So its worth putting it on the record that
its a myth.
In the case of psychology the story of resurgence has some truth. There are doubts
about its timing. The distinguished psychologist of memory Endel Tulving places it in
the 1980s. Consciousness has recently again been declared to be the central problem of
psychology, he wrote in 1985, citing a number of other authors.2 The great dam of
behaviouristic psychology was cracking and spouting. It was bursting. Even so, there
was a further wave of liberation in psychology in the 1990s. Discussion of
consciousness regained full respectability after seventy years of marginalization,
although there were of course (and still are) a few holdouts.
In the case of philosophy, however, the story of resurgence is simply a myth. There
was a small but fashionable group of philosophers of mind who in the 1970s and 80s
focused particularly on questions about belief and intentionality, and had relatively
little to say about consciousness. Their intensely parochial outlook may be one of the
origins of the myth. But the problem of consciousness, the hard problem, remained
central throughout those years. It never shifted from the heart of the discipline taken as
a whole.
It first established itself there (in the modern era) around the time of Descartess work

in the 1640sfor a very specific reason. The rapidly evolving mechanistic


corpuscularian theory of matter made it seem clear that matter just wasnt the kind of
stuff that could possibly be conscious. Little bits of different shapes and sizes bumping
into each other just couldnt do that kind of thing. Leibniz captured the thought in 1714
in a famous image:
consciousness . . . is inexplicable on mechanical principles , i.e. by shapes and movements. If
we imagine a machine whose structure makes it think, sense, and be conscious, we can conceive
of it being enlarged in such a way that we can go inside it like a mill. Suppose we do: visiting its
insides, we will never find anything but parts pushing each othernever anything that could
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explain a conscious state.

This is the so-called mind-body problem (the matterconsciousness problem is a


better name, although theres more to physical reality than matter). It entrenched itself
in the seventeenth century, although even then a good number of people, including the
deep Hobbes, found no insuperable difficulty in the idea that consciousness was wholly
material.4 It has remained at the centre of philosophical debate ever since. It rocked the
second half of the seventeenth century. It consumed the eighteenth, when many,
following Descartess lead, speculated about the possibility of what philosophers now
call zombies, creatures that are not conscious but are outwardlyand perhaps also
inwardlyindistinguishable from human beings. In 1755 Charles Bonnet observed that
God could create an automaton that would imitate perfectly all the external and
internal actions of man.5 In 1769, following Locke, he made a nice point against those
who resisted materialism on religious grounds: if someone ever proved that the mind is
material, then far from being alarmed, we should have to admire the power that was
able to give matter the capacity to think.6
The problem of how matter can be conscious remained intractable (a word often
used). It roared on into the nineteenth century, even as materialism grew in strength. In
1802, in On Sensations, Georges Cabanis wrote that we must consider the brain as
an organ specialized for the production of thought [consciousness], just as the liver
filters bile.7 Charles Darwin followed him in 1838: Why is thought [consciousness],
being a secretion of brain, more wonderful than gravity, a property of matter?.8 The
problem was regularly announced to be impossibly hard. Increasingly, however, this
was taken to be a reason not for doubting that consciousness was material, but rather for
doubting our ability to understand the ultimate nature of matter.
This modesty about our powers of understanding was again oldit was as old as it
was sensible9but it received powerful new expression. There was a fine cluster in the
1870s, as people speculated about the neural correlates of consciousness. The great
German physiologist Emil Du Bois-Reymond delivered his famous verdict on the
matterconsciousness problem in 1872: Ignoramus and ignorabimus. We dont
know how it is that matter is conscious (although it surely is), and we will never
know.10 In 1874 T. H. Huxley (On the Hypothesis that Animals Are Automata, and Its
History) and W. K. Clifford (Body and Mind) took it to be far beyond reasonable
doubt that consciousness is wholly materialwhat I perceive as your brain is really in
itself your consciousness, is You, Clifford wrotein spite of an enormous gulf in
our understanding.11 In the same year John Tyndall gave his great Belfast Address,
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which William James cited in 1890 as containing that lucky paragraph which has been
quoted so often that every one knows it by heart:
the passage from the physics of the brain to the corresponding facts of consciousness is
unthinkable. Granted that a definite thought and a definite molecular action in the brain occur
simultaneously; we do not possess the intellectual organ, nor apparently any rudiment of the
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organ, which would enable us to pass, by a process of reasoning, from one to the other.

The Belfast Address is long forgotten; the matterconsciousness problem is not. It


roared on again, into the twentieth centuryprobably no question is so profoundly
interesting to all mankind as the old question, what is the relation of the mind to the
body?, C. S. Minot wrote in 190213and continues unabated in the twenty-first. Ill
stick to the last hundred years. In 1913 the American psychologist J. B. Watson issued a
manifesto for behaviourism in psychology. It was at first a purely methodological
approach. It didnt say or suggest that consciousness didnt exist. It simply said that you
couldnt do proper science with it: the data of consciousness, as delivered by
introspective report, werent susceptible of scientific treatment. So althoughof
courseconsciousness existed, it was better to pass it by in the lab and study wholly
publicly observable things like behaviour.
This was a very fruitful move at the time. Its still useful. The trouble started, Im
sorry to say, when some philosophers got their hands on it. They took an admirable
method and gamed it into a crazy metaphysics. With a fine fiddle of theoretical bells
and whistles, they affirmed that consciousness is really just a matter of behaviour and
dispositions to behaviour: nothing more. This was philosophical behaviourism
(although psychologists were by no means immune). It took off in the 1920s, opening a
second front in the debate about consciousness in philosophy and science, even as the
original front (the straight-up matter consciousness problem) remained highly active.
In The Analysis of Mind (1921), which Watson read in typescript, Bertrand Russell was
already worried that behaviourists might go too far. In Evolutionary Naturalism (1922),
the leading American philosopher R. W. Sellars was alarmed by the behaviourist
tendency either to ignore or to deny consciousness.14
Philosophical behaviourists stoutly deny that they deny the existence of
consciousness. They say theyre simply giving a new theory of what it is, in saying that
its nothing more than a matter of behaviour and dispositions to behaviour. In fact, of
course, to say that consciousness is nothing more than behaviour and dispositions to
behaviour is to deny its existence. Its to eliminate consciousnessto endorse what
duly came to be known as eliminativismand, unsurprisingly, all remotely sensible
philosophers and scientists demurred right from the start, among them a top UK team:
Russell, G. E. Moore, A. N. Whitehead, Arthur Eddington, C. D. Broad, and Samuel
Alexander. In his large and very clever book The Mind and its Place in Nature (1925)
Broad apologized for bothering to take time to refute philosophical behaviourism before
getting down to the real problem of consciousness: I may be accused of breaking a
butterfly on a wheel in this discussion of Behaviourism. It is, he says, a silly theory,
where by a silly theory I mean one which may be held at the time when one is
talking or writing professionally, but which only an inmate of a lunatic asylum would
think of carrying into daily life. But it is important to remember that a theory which is
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in fact absurd may be accepted by the simple-minded because it is put forward in highly
technical terms by learned persons who are themselves too confused to know exactly
what they mean.15
Did Broad know what was coming (the logical behaviourists were about to weigh
in)? Perhaps he did: in his Preface he proposed to retire to my well-earned bathchair,
from which I shall watch with a fatherly eye the philosophic gambols of my younger
friends as they dance to the highly syncopated pipings of Herr Wittgensteins flute.16
The present point, however, is simply that the question of consciousness was central
quite independently of the rising popularity, in the new (i.e. post-1925) quantum
mechanics, of claims about the indispensability of reference to consciousness in
accounting for quantum-mechanical phenomena. The supposed task was still what it
was in Descartess time: to render intellectually conceivable the presence of
consciousness in the organism, in R. W. Sellarss words.17
Independently of the behaviourist debate, Russell (The Analysis of Matter, 1927),
Eddington (The Nature of the Physical World, 1928), Whitehead (Process and Reality,
1929) and others were pushing forward on the correct philosophical approach. You
dont absurdly deny the existence of consciousness, as some philosophers (e.g. Daniel
Dennett) still do today.18 You dontto borrow Broads terminologyput forward the
silliest view that has ever been held in the whole history of the human race. Instead you
raise doubts about how well we know the nature of matter. You think through the point
that Matter, as Auden remarked in 1940, is, like love, much / Odder than we
thought. You see that there ismust bemore to matter than physics can tell us. You
see that this is in fact a massive understatement. For what does physics tell us about the
ultimate intrinsic nature of matter, considered apart from its mathematically expressible
structure? Nothing. As Eddington said in 1928, Trinculo might have been referring to
modern physics in the words, This is the tune of our catch, played by the picture of
Nobody. If you want a concrete definition of matter, he said, it is no use looking to
physics. Physics cant get at its inner unget-atable nature.19 Russell in 1927 was
equally emphatic: Physics is mathematical, not because we know so much about the
physical world, but because we know so little: it is only its mathematical properties that
we can discover. For the rest, our knowledge is negative.20 This simple point was
almost completely forgotten in the 1960s.
On to the 1930s. In his Presidential Address to the American Philosophical
Association in 1935, J. B. Pratt observed that there has never been a time when so
much was written in the attempt to solve [the mindbody problem, i.e. the problem of
consciousness] or when those who consider this discussion an absurd waste of energy
spent so much of their time in trying to prove that no one should spend any time upon
it.21 Philosophers, psychologists, scientists and theologians were equally engaged on
both fronts, the old matterconsciousness front and the new behaviourist front. The
debate streamed on into the 1940s. (It was probably in 1944 that Wittgenstein reached
the conclusion that a sensation of pain is not a something, but its not a nothing
either!).22
All was not lost. In 1948, E. G. Boring, one of the leading operationist
psychologists in the mid-twentieth century, stood up for the correct common-sense view
that consciousness is what you experience immediately.23 In 1950, however, the
psychologist and philosophical behaviourist Brian Farrell judged Borings claim to be a
4

comical and pathogenic remark. The ordinary notion of consciousness, Farrell said,
can be shown to resemble an occult notion like witchcraft in a primitive community
that is in the process of being acculturated to the West. Fortunately, he said, science is
getting to the brink of rejecting it, in effect, as unreal or non-existent.24
Not so. In the 1950s the battles over behaviourism were still being fought across
science, philosophy, and psychology, fiercely relubricated by two books: Gilbert Ryles
The Concept of Mind (1949), which appears to mock ordinary belief in consciousness as
belief in a ghost in the machine, and Wittgensteins Philosophical Investigations
(1953). The problem of consciousness remained central. The ghost in the machine
became famous. Looking back thirty-five years later, Jerry Fodor recalled that when I
was a boy in graduate school [19569], the philosophy of mind had two main divisions:
the mind/body problem and the problem of other minds.25 The problem of other minds
was discussed mainly in Wittgensteinian terms, but the problem of consciousness lay at
its heart, too, and the matterconsciousness problem continued to be debated in its
original form.
It got a huge kick of new energy in the second half of the 1950s from U. T. Places
paper Is Consciousness a Brain-Process? (1956) and J. J. C. Smarts paper
Sensations and Brain Processes (1959)along with Herbert Feigls long essay The
Mental and The Physical, which was published in 1958 (the same year as
Schrdingers Mind and Matter). All three propounded versions of the identity
theory: mind and brain are identical. Mental goings-on are neural goings-on. It was
very old news, but it triggered, under the name Australian materialism, a huge
outpouring of discussions of consciousness through the 1960s and beyond. Feigl wrote
in 1967 that the mindbody problems [as opposed to behaviourist issues] are once
again in the forefront of highly active and intelligent philosophical discussions.26 A lot
of the participants were in effect committed to some form of eliminativism, i.e. to
denying the existence of consciousness, usually in a somewhat covert fashion (Paul
Feyerabend and Richard Rorty were more forthright).27 But this hardly diminished the
centrality of the problem. Nor was it undermined by the rapid rise of functionalism in
the 1960s after a powerful initial impulse in 1960 from Hilary Putnams Minds and
Machines (in which Putnam cheerfully announced that the various issues and puzzles
that make up the traditional mind-body problem are wholly linguistic and logical in
character).28 It was, on the contrary, increased. For functionalism, as a doctrine in the
philosophy of mind, is the view that one can capture the whole nature or essence of
certain (or all) types of mental state or occurrence simply by giving an account of their
typical or characteristic causes and effects, and it too ultimately amounts to a form of
eliminativism about consciousness.
So although the 1970s and 80sduring which functionalism was most fashionable
are the leading candidates for being the lost decades in the discussion of consciousness,
they were in fact no such thing. For one of the key issues, and arguably the central issue
(this is certainly how it seemed to me when I took up philosophy in 1972and
certainly no other issue was more central), was the inability of functionalism to give any
more satisfactory an account of consciousness than behaviourism. Donald Davidsons
Mental Events (1970) and Saul Kripkes Identity and Necessity (1971) triggered
large discussions. Thomas Nagels famous paper on consciousness, What is it like to
be a bat?, appeared in 1974 and was immediately a focus of discussion (it is one of the
5

most cited papers in all philosophy). Robert Kirks paper Zombies v. Materialists
came out in the same year, and talk of zombies was soon ubiquitous. Sydney
Shoemakers ingenious but unsuccessful attempt to find a place for consciousness
within functionalism in his paper Functionalism and Qualia (1975) (qualia is a
plural noun used to denote the qualitative characters of conscious experiences such as
colour experiences, taste experiences, and so on) further underscored the centrality of
the issue, as did Grover Maxwells Rigid Designators and MindBrain Identity
(1978), in which he re-raised the fading Russellian standard.
So also did all the many bids to reduce (in fact eliminate) consciousness, among
them Dennetts 1978 attempt to fit consciousness into information-flow psychology,
which, as Ned Block pointed out in the same year, has the relation to qualia that the
U.S. Air Force had to so many Vietnamese villages: he destroys qualia in order to save
them.29 The trouble with functionalism is that it has to allow that unconscious
creaturescreatures whom there is nothing it is like to becount as conscious just so
long as they function (behave) indistinguishably from conscious creatures. Some
muddled souls have thought that this is the issue raised by Alan Turing in his
description of the Imitation Game in Computing Machinery and Intelligence (1950).
But when Turing suggests a test for when it would be permissible to describe machines
as thinking, he explicitly puts aside the question of consciousness.
In 1979 Thomas Nagel powerfully restated the difficulty, concluding in his paper
Panpsychism (which acknowledged the influence of Rebecca Goldstein) that
panpsychism should be added to the current list of mutually incompatible and
hopelessly unacceptable solutions to the mindbody problem.30 John Searles paper
Minds, Brains, and Programs, containing the famous Chinese Room Argument, was
published in 1980, illustrating the hollowness of the functionalist idea that a thing
incapable of any sort of consciousness could ever really be said to understand anything.
It was followed in 1982 by Jacksons Epiphenomenal Qualia, which told the story of
Mary in the Black and White Room, now known as the Knowledge Argument
(amusingly dramatized by David Glover in Brainspotting, a three-part Channel 4
series on consciousness presented by Ken Campbell and broadcast in 1996).31 Both
these papers were focused on the problem of consciousness. Both were among the most
discussed papers in philosophy in the 1980s and into the 90s, right up to the mythical
point of resurgence and beyond. Contrary to surface appearances, Searle remarked in
1992, there really has been only one major topic of discussion in the philosophy of
mind for the past fifty years or so, and that is the mindbody problem.32 The 1980s
also saw the publication of Joseph Levines much-discussed paper Materialism and
qualia: The explanatory gap (1983), the same year as Rebecca Goldsteins novel The
MindBody Problem, which contained excellent Russellian insights, and Colin
McGinns The Subjective View. Paul Churchlands Matter and Consciousness was
published in 1984, Nagels The View from Nowhere in 1986, Michael Lockwoods
Mind, Brain & the Quantum in 1989. David Rosenthals Two Concepts of
Consciousness (1986) also provoked a vast volume of discussion of consciousnessof
a refreshingly different kind. Its arguable that it opened a third front in the discussion
within analytic philosophy, although it was also part of the attempt to incorporate
consciousness into the wholly naturalistic account of mind that produced Ruth
Millikans Biosemantics (1989).
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There was no slackening in the stream of publication. In 1989 McGinn called


consciousness the hard nut of the mindbody problem, in a vivid and influential paper,
Can We Solve the Mind-Body Problem?, in which he gave reasons for thinking that
Du Bois-Reymond was right: ignoramus and ignorabimus. In the same year I called it
the hard part of the mindbody problem, repeating the phrase in Mental Reality
(1994): consciousness is the only hard part of the mindbody problem . . . the rest is
easy.33
Wed reached the mythical watershed, where philosophers were supposed to wake up
to the problem of consciousness, largely on account of Francis Cricks The Astonishing
Hypothesis (1994) and David Chalmerss Facing up to the Problem of Consciousness
(1995), along with Michael Tyes Ten Problems of Consciousness (1995), and
Chalmerss The Conscious Mind (1996). By this time, however, the 1990s had already
produced McGinns The Problem of Consciousness (1991), Dennetts Consciousness
Explained (1991, sometimes affectionately known as Consciousness Ignored), Owen
Flanagans Consciousness Reconsidered (1992), and Searles The Problem of
Consciousness (1993). Searles paper was preceded by his book The Rediscovery of
the Mind (1992), which struck a trenchant blow for commonsense realism about
consciousness, especially in Chapter 3, Breaking the Hold: Silicon brains, conscious
robots, and other minds. He was motivated partly by intellectual distress, as he
explained in his Introduction:
When I read the standard authors and tried to explain their views to my students, I was appalled
to discover that with few exceptions these authors routinely denied what I thought were simple
and obvious truths about the mind. It was then, and still is, quite common to deny, implicitly or
explicitly, such claims as the following: We all have inner subjective qualitative states of
34
consciousness.

Throughout the 1990s, then, consciousness continued to be a central topic in philosophy


of mind, as it had been throughout the century. There was a new buzz, but the ratio of
occurrences of the words conscious and mind in the abstracts of all journals
covered by The Philosophers Index was effectively the same in the 1960s and 1990s
(0.70 and 0.73 respectively), and again in the 1970s and 2000s (0.82 and 0.80
respectively). Intentional(ity) had a surge relative to conscious in the 1980s and
1990s, but the problem of consciousness remained central. Conscious reached its
lowest level relative to mental in the 1990s (1.1), picked up in the 2000s (1.36), but
didnt return to its 1960s and 1970s levels (1.58 and 1.55 respectively).
These are crude measures, but theyre not insignificant. There was, certainly, an
explosion of interest in the problem of consciousness outside the philosophy world, as
the phrase the hard problem became famous. This was a great thing, but there was no
important new idea in The Conscious Mind, as David Papineau pointed out in his
review in the TLS,35 and its unfortunate that the beautiful history of this debate has
been largely lost. (Many now write as if the problem of consciousness was discovered
by Chalmers.) Most of the bestmost vivid, insightfulwork lies in the further past.
As for the astonishing hypothesis, it was the daily bread of the eighteenth-century
French materialists and nineteenth-century German materialists, and many others. That
matter thinks [is conscious] is a fact, the Italian Giacomo Leopardi wrote in his
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notebook in 1827.36 It was comicand somewhat sadto see the astonishing


hypothesis paraded as bold and new. Chomsky made the point forcefully in 1995, in
Language and Nature,37 in which he quoted Joseph Priestley writing in 17778:
Mind is not a substance distinct from the body, but the result of corporeal organization
sensation and thought do necessarily result from the organization of the brain in my opinion
there is just the same reason to conclude that the brain thinks, as that it is white and soft . The
faculty of thinking [consciousness, experience] is the result of a certain arrangement of the parts
38
of matter . What I call myself is an organized system of matter.

Didnt the 1990s at least witness a great increase in the proportion of philosophers of
mind who were prepared to stand up for unequivocal common-sense realism about
consciousness? It seems not. The consensus is that such realism continued then, and
continues today, to be a minority view among analytic philosophers of mind. Many of
them still seem to think that a genuinely naturalistic approach to reality rules out a
realist attitude to consciousness, although consciousness is a wholly natural
phenomenon, extremely widespread in nature, and (inevitably) the first thing that any
genuine naturalist encounters. How is this possible? Well, as Daniel Kahneman
observes, we know that people can maintain an unshakable faith in any proposition,
however absurd, when they are sustained by a community of like-minded believers.39
Cicero adds, correctly, that there is no statement so absurd that no philosopher will
make it.40
At the root of the muddle lies an inability to overcome the Very Large Mistake so
clearly identified by Eddington and others in the 1920snot to mention the lovely
Irishman John Toland in 1704, Anthony Collins in 1707, Hume in 1739, Priestley in
17778, and many others. The mistake is to think we know enough about the nature of
physical reality to have any good reason to think that consciousness cant be physical.
It seems to be stamped so deeply in us, by our everyday experience of matter as lumpen
stuff, that not even appreciation of the extraordinary facts of current physics can weaken
its hold. To see through it is a truly revolutionary experience.
Its what Hilary needs to do, in Tom Stoppards new play The Hard Problem. She
challenges her amorous tutor Spike to explain consciousness and insists that when you
come right down to it, the body is made of thingsshe means physical things and
things dont have thoughts. There is, however, no good reason to think that this last
thing is true, and overwhelming reason to think its false.

Coda
1 Giacomo Leopardi (Notebooks 9 March 1827)
following all reason, following the natural progress of the discursive intellect, we
should have saidtaken it to be indubitablethat matter can think; that matter thinks
and feels. If I hadnt come across any elastic body I would perhaps have said that matter
cannot move in any direction other than as a function of its weight or gravity. Similarly,
if I knew nothing about electricity, or airs property of being an instrument of sound, I
8

would say that matter is not capable of certain actions and phenomena, that air cannot
produce such effects. But because I do know about elastic bodies, electricity, etc., I
sayand no one disagreesmatter can do this, and this, is capable of these particular
phenomena. I see bodies that think and feel. I mean bodies: that is, men and animals
that I do not see, do not feel, do not know, and cannot know, to be other than bodies.
Therefore l say: matter can think and feel; it does think and feel. No sir; you should
rather say: matter can never think or feel in any way. Why? Because we do not
understand how it can do it. Fantastic! So do we understand how matter attracts
bodies, how it makes those wonderful effects of electricity, how air makes sound? Do
we perhaps understandin any way at allthe force of attraction, of gravity, of
elasticity? Do we actually understand what electricity is, or the force of matter? And if
we do not understand it, and never will, do we therefore deny that matter is capable of
doing these things, when we see that it is? Prove to me that matter can think and
feel. Why should I have to prove it? It is proven by fact. We see bodies that think
and feel; and you, who are a body, think and feel. I need no other proof. It is not the
bodies that think. Then what is it? It's a different substance within them. Who
says so? No one: but we must suppose so, because matter cannot think. First of
all, you prove this to me: that matter cannot think. But it's obvious, it doesn't need
proof, it's an axiom, its self-evident: its assumed, to be taken for granted without
further ado.
In fact, the only way we can justify our many fantastical opinions, systems, lines of
reasoning, castles in the air, about spirit and soul, is to reduce them to this: that the
impossibility of matter being able to think and feel is an axiom, an innate principle of
reason which does not need proof. We have in effect started out from the absolute and
gratuitous supposition of this impossibility in order to prove the existence of the spirit.
It would take forever to detail all the absurdities that had to be acceptedthe crazy
arguments and contradictions of our usual methods and discursive procedureto make
the case for this putative substance, and to arrive at the conclusion that it exists. Here,
truly, the poor old human intellect has behaved more childishly than any in any other
matter. And yet the truth was there before its very eyes. The facts declared it: matter
thinks and feels .41
2 Henry Marsh Do No Harm (2014)
As a practical brain surgeon I have always found the philosophy of the so-called
Mind-Brain Problem confusing and ultimately a waste of time. It has never seemed a
problem to me, only a source of amazement and profound surprise that my
consciousness, my very sense of self, the self which feels as free as air, which was
trying to read the book but instead was watching the clouds through the high windows,
the self which is now writing these words, is in fact the electrochemical chatter of one
hundred billion nerve cells. The author of the book appeared equally amazed by the
'Mind-Brain Problem', but as I started to read his list of theoriesfunctionalism,
epiphenomenalism, emergent materialism, dualistic interactionism or was it
interactionistic dualism?1 quickly drifted off to sleep, waiting for the nurse to come
and wake me, telling me it was time to return to the theatre and start operating on the
old man's brain.42
9


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Notes
1

1790: 160.
1985: 1.
3
Monadology 20.
4
See e.g. Hobbes 1655: ch. 25
5
1755: 92.
6
1769: 1.50.
7
1802: 15960.
8
1838: 271. The image was popular, e.g. with the German materialists. Carl Vogt wrote in 1847 that
consciousness stands in the same relation to the brain as bile to the liver or urine to the kidneys (1847:
206). Darwins grandfather Erasmus also endorsed a materialist outlook in Zoonomia (1794).
9
It is hard to beat Lockes great paragraph, published in 1689 in his Essay Concerning Human
Understanding, book 4, chapter 3, paragraph 6.
10
1872: 32.
11
1874: 42, 29.
12
James 1890: 1.147. In fact the passage is from Tyndalls 1868 address to the British Association for the
Advancement of Science in Norwich (Tyndall 1868: 511).
13
1902:11; it is a question which has been stated in many forms and from many points of view, but the
essential object of the question is always the same, to ask whether consciousness is a function of living
matter, or something discrete and not physical or material.
2

11

14

1922: 301.
1925: 6234; 5; 624.
16
1925: vii.
17
1922: 288.
18
See e.g. Dennett 1978; 1991: 4056; 1993: 891, 2013.
19
1928: 292; 257.
20
1927: 163.
21
1936: 144.
22
c1944: 304.
23
1948: 6.
24
1950: 189; 195; 1945.
25
1994: 292.
26
1967: 136.
27
See for example Feyerabend 1963a, 1963b, Rorty 1965.
28
1960: 362.
29
1978: 309.
30
1979: 193. T. L. S. Sprigge took up the task of defending panpsychism in his book The Vindication of
Absolute Idealism (1983).
31
Howard Robinson proposed essentially the same thought-experiment in his book Matter and Sense,
published in the same year. It was anticipated by (among others) James, Broad, N. Jacobs (who noted that
a fortunate physician could know all there was to know about headaches without ever having had
one; 1937: 604), and Feigl. Russell put it as follows in 1927: It is obvious that a man who can see
knows things which a blind man cannot know; but a blind man can know the whole of physics. Thus the
knowledge which other men have and he has not is not a part of physics (1927b: 389)
32
1992: 29.
33
1989: 80; 1994: 95.
34
1992: xi.
35
Papineau writes: One of the most public figures in this debate has been David J. Chalmers . His
ideas about consciousness are often mentioned, and The Conscious Mind, his first book, has been widely
heralded, with a preview in Scientific American last year, and prominent discussion in the Time
[magazine] piece. In the event, the result is disappointing. The book contains many sensible comments,
but little is original, and the theory Chalmers himself defends is a variant of a familiar position with
known deficiencies. (1996: ). Chalmers responded in a letter published on 2 August, 1996.
36
It is regarded as paradoxical that matter can think [be conscious]. We start out convinced of its
impossibility (1827: 191213).
37
1995: 8.
38
177782: 3.220; 3.303; 1778: 4.40, 4.44, 4.46.
39
2011: 211.
40
c50 BCE: 58/119.
41
1827: 18845.
42
2014: 120.
15

12